Like everyone else I am having trouble thinking about anything other than the coronavirus pandemic and the shockwaves it has sent, and will continue to send, through the system. As it began to unfold I found myself thinking, talking, and posting about it fairly constantly. In an effort to try to keep it confined to a given time and place, both physically and psychologically, I am keeping a diary of it all.
May 19: Today is our third wedding anniversary. We got married on the patio of a restaurant we love here in Columbus. We spent our first anniversary in England. We spent our second anniversary back at that restaurant. If things were normal we’d probably be back there again, but they’re not normal, so we made steaks at home, opened up a bottle of bubbly and watched “Normal People.” I guess a show with the word “normal” in its title is as normal as things can be right now.
There’s another anniversary today: it’s the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Matewan, sometimes referred to as the Matewan Massacre. You can read all about it in depth here. Or you can seek out the John Sayles movie dramatizing it. It’s a hell of a movie. One of my favorites of all time.
The short version: as the United Mine Workers of America attempted to organize the southern West Virginia coal fields, Sid Hatfield, the police chief of Matewan, West Virginia, refused to let some Baldwin-Felts detectives hired by the coal company evict miners who were attempting to unionize. A gunfight broke out — who fired first is a matter of conjecture — but by the time it was over Hatfield and armed miners had killed seven Baldwin-Felts agents. Two miners and the mayor of Matewan were killed as well.
The Battle of Matewan led to greater efforts to organize miners. It also, eventually, led to the death of Sid Hatfield, who was gunned down on the courthouse steps by Baldwin-Felts agents as he was heading to trial on a subsequent matter a little over a year later. After Hatfield was killed — and after no one was prosecuted for his murder despite it happening in public, in broad daylight, in front of multiple witnesses — outraged miners began to pour out of the mountains and take up arms. Ten thousand of them eventually marched on Logan and Mingo Counties in an effort to impose a union by force. It was the largest armed uprising in the country since the American Civil War. It led to an actual battle — the Battle of Blair Mountain — in which the U.S. Army dropped bombs out of airplanes on the miners. In all, over 100 people were killed, and over one million rounds were fired.
Hardly anyone in the country knows about any of that. When you’re in the eighth grade in West Virginia, however, you’re required to take a West Virginia Studies class that covers it. I’m not sure how big a part of the class’ standard curriculum deals with the West Virginia Mine Wars, but my West Virginia studies teacher spent a lot of time on it and did not pull any punches. It made a massive impression on me. A year later we moved down to the southern part of the state where the coal fields are and where the major events of 1920-21 took place. When I was in high school I met older people who were the children of miners involved in all of that business or who were young when it happened. That made a massive impression on me too.
I suspect that if my eighth grade West Virginia Studies teacher were to teach about the Mine Wars now the same way he did in 1986 he’d be made the subject of some Fox News segment about “communist, unionized teachers indoctrinating our kids” or something. I suspect that, to anyone outside of West Virginia, the idea of teaching kids about labor history at all would be considered suspect. At the very least the subject matter would be cast as ancient history with no relevance to the world of today.
That’d be a lie of course. Look no further than today’s news.
Ohio’s hasty, economically-driven reopening plans — plans which Governor DeWine himself called “a gamble” — were based on the advice of nine separate business “Advisory Groups” consisting of business owners, investors and “government liaisons” (read: lobbyists) dealing with industries such as restaurants, salons, casinos and tourism. These Advisory Groups were tasked with determining what’s safe and what’s not and what are the best practices for workplaces in a reopened economy.
Except, as Tyler Buchanan of the Ohio Capital Journal reported today, not a single one of the 150 members of those Advisory Groups was an actual employee. Indeed, workers — at least workers who were not also owners of the business — were not consulted on the decisions that will place them directly in danger at all. Similarly, A separate Economic Recovery Task Force made up of state legislators heard from more than 110 invited guests and, to date, not a single worker has been invited to testify.
When asked about workers not being heard from as he made decisions to reopen the state, governor DeWine basically said that he believes in his heart that businesses care about their employees and do not want any harm to come to them. When asked about why he is not requiring masks but, instead, leaving it up to people to decide for themselves, he simply said that he hopes people do the right thing. Almost everything the state is doing now is advisory, not mandatory. Public health has become something to be attended to on a voluntary basis.
When asked about returning to work and/or the resumption of regular business, some employees told the Ohio Capital Journal they trusted their bosses. Others did not. One said, “I do not want to go to work anymore. I still wear a face mask daily, but no other co-workers do. I do not feel protected in my office and I have no idea what to do.”
Anyone who has studied labor history knows that simply trusting business to do the right thing by their workers out of the goodness of its heart is foolish. Anyone who knows anything about human nature knows that depending on altruism in the face of economic incentives is foolish as well. There is no reason to believe that a business owner-driven reopening plan with almost no base safety requirements, no practical enforcement mechanism for the few requirements that do exist, and nothing more than Mike DeWine’s optimism filling in the gaps is going to lead to anything but disaster.
It’ll be a disaster that, like the West Virginia Mine Wars, hardly anyone in the country will hear much about because, in all likelihood, it’ll be effectively covered up.
The latest on that: the architect and manager of Florida’s COVID-19 dashboard — a public-facing information clearinghouse for coronavirus information — announced that she has been removed from her position. She says it was because she was ordered to “manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen” but refused to do so. Between this, the news out of Georgia the past few days, and what we already know about the disposition of those pushing re-opening plans, I think it’s inevitable that the data we’ll be getting going forward is going to be increasingly unreliable. Likely intentionally so.
If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts. Or hire a bunch of politically-driven doctors to spin facts. Or don’t even acknowledge the facts in the first place.
Even those of us playing in the shallow end of the media pool — sports — are expected by some to ignore the facts.
Yesterday ESPN published a pretty comprehensive story laying out all of the obstacles to Major League Baseball mounting a season in 2020 and all of the potential ways things could go sideways if they do. I shared the story on both my website and on Twitter, suggesting that the task of playing professional sports this summer may be too great and that, perhaps, Major League Baseball was whistling past the graveyard.
While the vast majority of my readers and followers have been pretty levelheaded about all of this stuff — probably because the people who hate anything but the “rah-rah, yay sports!” stuff unfollowed me a long time ago — there were still some pretty dumb reactions. A couple of people accused me of “biting the hand that feeds me” and bashing me for “rooting against sports.”
I, obviously, make my living writing about baseball, but I don’t work for the league. My job is not to promote the game in any specific way or to “root for sports” in general. I don’t pretend that what I do is Woodward and Bernstein stuff and no one is gonna die if I don’t write little blog posts about baseball, but I am, at least on a basic level, a journalist, not a p.r. man. If the business I cover is facing major challenges I’m not going to pretend they don’t exist.
But, boy howdy, do a lot of people want to do that these days. And for the most part, they’re getting away with it.
(Featured Image: Kaymoor One coal mine, New River Gorge, West Virginia. More info here. Photo by Craig Calcaterra)